Jim Jarmusch finished the script for Mystery Train, a deadpan triptych set on the wrong side of the tracks in Memphis, without ever laying eyes on the place.
But the New York filmmaker, a member of the late '70s/early '80s art-punk band Del-Byzanteens, knew his musical history: Memphis, home of Sun Records, the storefront sound studio at which Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison rockabillied their way to stardom. Memphis, where bluesmen Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters played for change in the pocket parks along Beale Street. Memphis, home of Elvis - and home of Elvis' home, Graceland.
Jarmusch knew something, too, of the city's place in the civil-rights movement, its place in history as the site at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
"Those are the things that drew me to Memphis," Jarmusch says about the magnificently rundown locales of his latest film, which opened Wednesday at the Ritz Five. "But I didn't even know if I would find the kind of locations that I imagined." It could have been, he realized, just another urban-renewal metropolis - modern office towers and strip malls, a bland, characterless cityscape.
Never mind. Before his first night in town was over, the 36-year-old Akron, Ohio, native had found the key sites for his film: an intersection at which an out-of-use train station, the Arcade Luncheonette and a shuttered flophouse, the Arcade Hotel, stood like backdrops from some Edward Hopper painting.
"The really strange thing is that those three things are right on a crossroad," he says, "and when people used to arrive in Memphis by train, that's the first part of town they would see."
But Jarmusch didn't know that when he flew into the Tennessee city on a January night almost two years ago. "There was a snowstorm, so there was almost no traffic. I just got the rented car from the hotel and started driving around without even a map to orient myself, and I drove right to that area. I was drawn there. . . . There was some very strong pull to that place."
A lot of things that end up in Jarmusch's movies happen like that: without premeditation, seemingly by chance. The writer-director - whose Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law were the hits of the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 and '86, respectively - is a firm believer in improvisation and a "pretty much accidental" approach to moviemaking.
Critics see recurring motifs in Jarmusch's loping, loopy tales of strangers in strange lands. For instance, he populates his films with as many working musicians as he does actors: John Lurie (of the Lounge Lizards) in Stranger Than Paradise, Tom Waits in Down by Law (and Waits' voice as a DJ in Mystery Train) and Joe Strummer, Rufus Thomas and Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train.
"I don't sit at home and think, 'OK, what musicians can I get in my next film?' " Jarmusch says from his apartment in the East Village. "It really happens by accident, in the case of all of those people - Jay, Tom, Joe, John Lurie. It seems that I tend to hang out with people involved in the music world more than in the film world. And since my work evolves in a kind of organic way, where I start with characters and not with a story, I tend to shape the characters around people I know.
"Another thing: People think that it's very deliberate that these films always concern a contrast between American and non-American characters, but that is also partly accidental, because I meet people from different places, and I get ideas for a character for them. Whatever nationality they are, whatever culture they're from, enters the story, in a way, secondarily."
In Mystery Train, a deftly connected trilogy of short stories, Japanese actors Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase play a hopelessly cool young couple from Yokohama, visiting the birthplace of rock and roll.
Italian actress Nicoletta Braschi (she was also in Down by Law) plays Luisa, a widow stranded overnight in Memphis when her connecting flight to Rome is canceled. And England's Joe Strummer, late of the angry young band the Clash, plays Johnny, a fierce loser whose American girlfriend has left him on the same day he loses his job.
The stories are subtly linked together - by a train clanking through the night, by the baleful chords of Elvis' "Blue Moon," by the arch comedy of Cinqué Lee (Spike's younger brother) and Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the Arcade Hotel's bleary-eyed bellhop and night clerk.
Unlike Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, Mystery Train was shot in color, another artistic choice the director terms "intuitive." But like his earlier films, Mystery Train is filled with wry silences; dialogue is sparse. Characters walk into empty frames, the camera remains stationary, and they walk out of them again. Scenes fade to black.
"I think of my films as being somehow more related to poetry as a form than to prose," says Jarmusch, who studied writing and literature at Columbia (after abandoning journalism at Northwestern University). "This sounds a little pretentious; I don't mean it that way. . . . I like the spaces that happen between things, even between dialogue. Sometimes that's a lot more meaningful than the dialogue itself. There's even a word in Japanese, that comes from the Chinese idiogram ma, that we can't translate into English. . . . It basically means the space between things which defines those things by not being a part of them."
Jarmusch offers an example: "In a Western painting of, say, several people in a boat, fishing in the ocean, the ocean would be the horizon and the boat would be the main object in the composition.
"In the Eastern painting, the boat might be very, very tiny and the rest of the composition would just be ocean in order to define the subject by what is around it, rather than by itself."
In the same way, Jarmusch defines the success of his own work not from his own perspective but by the view from the theater seats.
"For me," he explains, "the most important moment is when the film is released and a real audience is seeing it, because their interpretation of the film, their reaction, is as valid - or maybe more valid - as mine. I don't try to calculate what kind of audience I am aiming for when I'm making the film, but when the film is finished, it's for the audience.
"The festivals, the avant premieres with famous people, movie stars and critics - they don't mean anything for me. I like to walk into the theater, sneak in the back and watch the film with a real audience. . . . That's the happiest moment for me, unless, of course, the audience is fleeing the theater.
"Then it's not so happy, but at least it got that far."